Imperialism and Ceremony in Bali

After participating in a fire ceremony in Ubud, Bali, I had a few conversations with local people to clarify my feelings about rituals, tourism, and cultural imperialism. On the one hand, the ceremony had an undeniable authenticity and power that affected me deeply. On the other hand, I am grieved by the conversion of traditional customs, arts, ceremonies, and whole cultures into spectacles for tourists to gawk at, photograph, and purchase paraphernalia from, or to acquire as “experiences” in their traveler’s backpack. I wanted to understand whether my very presence there was contributing to that. Maybe we should just stay away from places like Bali, seeing what our money and worldviews do to the fabric of local culture. So I talked to some Balinese to help me find clarity on this.

First, let me expand on the problem, which might be summarized as cultural imperialism. What’s that? Well, the essence of political imperialism is to subjugate another land’s government to one’s own. The government of that country becomes no longer its own.

Economic imperialism is similar: it turns the subject economy toward serving the interests of the imperialistic power rather than those of its own people, usually by compelling it to grow commodity crops for export, strip its natural resources, and turn its society into a labor pool and a market. The wealth of the country becomes no longer its own.

So cultural imperialism, which I see in action everywhere I travel outside the “developed” world, would be to subjugate another culture so that it no longer is its own. (In fact, the very words “developed” and “developing” encode a kind of imperialism, because they imply that “your destination is to be like us.”) An obvious form of cultural imperialism would be to commodify the cultural traditions, ceremonies, handicrafts, and cuisine of the subject culture. When, for example, a traditional ceremony or dance becomes a spectacle put on for paying tourists, it has been removed from its former context and relocated to the category of a product. What is it, really and primarily? Is it to serve gods that are a living reality? Or is it to sell to the tourists?

The essence of responsible tourism is to respect the culture that one visits. To respect it means to value it on its own terms, rather than subordinating to the visitor’s ontological categories and standards of value. That is why photography is often disrespectful. By taking pictures of a ceremony in progress, you are implying that you don’t really take it seriously on its own terms, that its value is as a curiosity piece, an acquisition, a spectacle.

When foreigners from developed countries see one’s ceremonies and traditions in that way, it is inevitable that their implicit disrespect will infect the local people themselves. The visitors represent not only a different worldview, but one from a culture that also exercises military, economic, and technological dominance. Cultural, or, if you will, epistemological imperialism says, “We know better than you do” – a message that other forms of dominance seem to verify. They are so rich, so powerful – it would be crazy to doubt that they know better.

The traditional world-story of Bali, it seems, is still strong. We asked our driver whether his family practices the fire ceremony at home. “No,” he said, “we use incense instead.” The answer, basically, was not no but yes. And this is not a trivial ceremony. We asked what time of day they perform the ceremony, and he said it could be any time, or even several times a day. “We know that the gods are always watching us, not just five times a day like the Muslims,” he joked. What I took from it is that these are not empty rituals performed as a nod to tradition; for this man, at least, they are a part of culturally ingrained perceptions of the world. Nor do they exist in isolation from non-religious social relationships. They are an integral and inseparable thread in the fabric of life.

That is one reason why cultural imperialism usually accompanies economic imperialism. When the fabric of economic life unravels, when commercial relationships replace gift relationships, when work becomes detached from local needs and instead serves the global economy, when local interdependency erodes and people no longer need each other, when livelihoods no longer depend on an intimate connection to the land, then the mythology that reflects and references this kind of life loses its relevancy. When education, hospitals, and the media affirm a worldview that directly contradicts the traditional one, the ceremonies that draw from the old worldview seem antiquated, superstitious, and irrational.In Bali I considered whether my very presence there, as an outsider contributing to the tourism industry and therefore to the monetization of life, were disruptive to the integrity of the culture.

One might say that if I don’t go there someone else will; that it is better to be a respectful tourist than to leave tourism to the yahoos. Rampant tourism is not an inevitability however. While it is not realistic – nor do most local people desire it – to cut off all intercourse with the outside world, judicious limits on tourism, such as those implemented in Bhutan, make a lot of sense. They can slow the pace and soften the impact of the dominant global culture’s incursions. In the West we typically decry any limits on travel, on the media, on consumer goods, on advertising, and so on as evidence of political repression: that, for example, is how we characterize Third-world politicians railing on about keeping “Western decadence” out of their countries. But seeing how all of these are creating a global monoculture that is indeed decadent, we may want to reconsider whether “openness” might really mean openness to imperialism in all its forms. No one can look at the crass commercial resorts on Bali’s coast and not think they are decadent.

While I had some intellectual reasons to think that my presence there was harmful, I like to trust my feelings on such matters. I was surprised that I didn’t feel uncomfortable at the fire ceremony. Later, in a conversation with another Balinese man, Wira, I was able to articulate why. The officiants of the ceremony were not doing it for show. They weren’t selling us a ceremony or showing us a ceremony. They hadn’t turned it into a product or spectacle and thereby subsumed it within our system of categories. Their attitude was more along the lines of, “The fire ceremony is good for everyone, whether Balinese or foreign.” Their own cosmology was primary. They gave it to us in the spirit of a gift.

I said to Wira, “It isn’t only to photograph and say they’ve done it, that Western people go to your ceremonies. There is another reason. You see, in my country most of us no longer understand that rituals hold together the fabric of the world. The worldview we were brought up in says that your ceremonies are just empty gestures attached to superstition. We might value them as cultural objects, but we don’t understand that they are actually a kind of technology that has a powerful effect on the social and material world.

“A few of us do understand, but even if we understand it doesn’t do us much good, because we have forgotten our ceremonies, and we have forgotten how to see the world through they eyes of ceremony. That is why we are here, some of us. We recognize that we have something important to learn here. We come in respect and gratitude for the treasure you have kept safe in this corner of the world.”

“Maybe today most Westerners are still here as agents of cultural imperialism, pushing you to make the Bali experience into some kind of tourism product. But that is changing, because our belief in our own superiority is eroding. How can we believe it, when our world is so obviously falling apart? You see, we are experiencing the truth of what you know here – when we stop performing the ceremonies that hold the world together, then everything falls apart. That is what is happening in our country.”

Then I told Wira about the obesity, the suicide, the depression, the poverty, the prisons. Western technological culture sees the world in a way that precludes the kind of ceremony that is common in Bali. To perform ceremonies, one has to believe that the universe is alive: not just the plants and animals, but everything: the rocks, the streams, the mountains, the clouds, the forest, the wind, each and every thing. Seeing them as having beingness, as having the qualities of a self, including a kind of intelligence or consciousness, desires, purpose, and a necessary role to play in the unfolding order of the world, then it is quite natural to want to communicate with them, and to believe that they can hear and respond. The Balinese world is alive with gods, and they are watching all the time.

Bali’s culture is under pressure, but it is still strong. A long-time expatriate there told me that if anything, the Balinese are responding to the stresses of the impact of the West with more ceremonies, not fewer. In their worldview, the way one responds to social illness is with ceremony.

Even though I came to Bali as a tourist (well, a retreat leader), in complicity with the monetization of the culture, I hope that the conversations I had and the attitude I bore had a countervailing effect. Intention is important in such matters. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with visiting another culture if you do it with respect. People have been visiting distant lands for thousands of years. Respect is the opposite of cultural imperialism, because it values the culture on its own terms rather than subordinating it to ones own.

Imagine if ETs showed up in our society and began appearing at serious occasions with cameras. “Wait,” you might protest, “we take photographs at our own rituals (such as weddings) all the time.” But that isn’t the kind of ritual I’m talking about. We misunderstand ritual – real rituals are sequences of actions that we experience as more real, not less real, than other activities. They draw their significance and importance from the world-story behind them. A visit to the doctor’s office is a good example. The ritual waiting period, the outer and inner chamber (waiting room and examination room), the ritual ablution the doctor must perform, the disrobing, the body ordeal, the writing of the sacred writ in an arcane language (of pharmacology), the preparatory ritual overseen by an assistant shaman (the nurse) followed by a visit by a fully initiated one (who has undergone a multi-year initiation and ceremonial addition to his name)… this is one of the true rituals of our culture, though it falls short of being a ceremony. We think it isn’t a ritual; we think it is “real,” and can explain each of its components in terms of a world-story (that includes things like germs, insurance, money, etc.) Imagine the effect it would have if strange and technologically super-advanced humanoids showed up in gaggles and groups, asking to watch blood tests, PET scans, and colonoscopies, and even to experience them themselves in order to have an authentic Earth experience, holographically recording all of it, throwing around huge amounts of money, and meanwhile implying that our medical theories were superstitious nonsense by setting up their own healing clinics and schools advancing a knowledge system that seemed, at least superficially, far more powerful. The result would be a devastating loss of confidence in our own medical rituals and their underlying worldview. It wouldn’t help if some well-meaning ETs said, “Oh, you must preserve these beautiful rituals, even if they are based on mere superstition.”

This has been a thread in the story of cultural imperialism. The situation is changing now, though, as the power of our own rituals wanes, and the world-story that embeds them crumbles. Many people go to Bali for healing from chronic conditions that modern medicine can only palliate. Emerging from the fog of our old narratives, we are able to appreciate Bali on its own terms. The same goes for any culture that has preserved a worldview alternative to our own.

Another way to look at it is that the world-story of the West may be no longer strong enough to conquer all before it. Its hegemony, which compelled the whole world to “modernize” in our image, to think like us and see like us and buy like us and sell like us and join us in laying waste to the planet, is coming to an end. I realize that is a highly optimistic view; that around the world the degradation of traditional culture reaches new extremes. In Bali one sees teenage boys everywhere slouched on motorbikes, smoking cigarettes, barraged with technology and media that alienates them from the culture of their parents and makes them seem backwards. Yet our certainty in our own superiority is waning. The economic and political mechanisms of cultural imperialism operate as before, but their ideological core is hollowing out. The old arrogance is losing its foundation.

As the word decadent implies, Western civilization is decaying from the inside. We face a crisis of meaning, a crisis in the world-defining stories that we will someday recognize as myths. Some of the Westerners who come to Bali, and in particular the spiritual center of Ubud, do so for reasons outside the cultural-imperialistic norm. They go there not only for the “experiences” that constitute what the tourism industry calls a product. It is a place that reminds us of what we have lost and, more importantly, can give us a hint of how to recover it. It is perhaps significant that Bali means “gift” in Sanskrit, and Ubud means “medicine.”

Each place on earth is a gift and has a gift to give to the world. One of the gifts of Bali, and many other places where old ways still live, is to reawaken the perception of a sacred world in those who have lost it. My own culture has its rituals to be sure, but these draw from and reinforce a world-story that explicitly denies the sacred, seeing the universe as a purposeless melee of force and mass, generic particles and impersonal laws. What distinguishes a ceremony from a ritual, in my mind, is the presence of the sacred – the feeling that one is communicating with a vast intelligence beyond one’s self. The rituals that we call medicine, law, finance, and technology lack that dimension; in they case of technology they explicitly deny it. In the absence of the sacred, we treat the world as just a bunch of stuff. Ultimately we treat ourselves that way too. For our healing, sometimes we need to seek the medicine of a place that relates to the world as sacred. We become no longer tourists, but pilgrims.

This post was previously published on and is republished here under a Creative Commons license CC BY-ND 4.0.


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